The Joys of Progress
November 2002

by James Colburn

Alt TextWhat con-man at which advertising agency invented the phrase "mega-pixel"? It sure sounds impressive but it's pretty meaningless in the real world of photography and publishing so why bother using it? If I'm going to be spending untold thousands of dollars on a professional digital camera I want to know the maximum file size that said camera will produce. Will it give me a 9Mb TIFF file? 12Mb? 18? 32???

I really don't give a tinker's damn how many "mega-pixels" a camera has but I do want to know if the camera will produce a file good enough for a full page photo in the magazine (that'd be 254dpi x 8.5inches x 11inches = 17.3Mb for me but your mileage may differ depending on what you're printing.) It's only recently that cameras have been able to produce this kind of file without the magic of Genuine Fractals but I see now that Canon will be shortly introducing an EOS digital camera that will produce a 31Mb TIFF file. Other manufacturers will surely follow.

This is good, and it's bad.

  • It's good because we are finally approaching film quality in a professional digital camera.

  • It's bad because the thing is going to have an MSRP of around $8000 and the digital cameras you paid $4000 for a year ago will be, essentially, worthless.

  • It's good because there will be little or no "magnification factor" with this (or similar) cameras so a 20mm lens will work like a 20mm lens.

  • It's bad because everyone that went out and traded in their 20-35mm lens for a 16-35mm lens to get that "20mm look" has wasted $1000 and should have just waited, and since everyone with a 16mm wide angle will want to use that 16mm wide angle you're going to see press conferences with many, many still photographers getting very, very close to the podium which will infuriate the TV people and cause fist fights across the country.

  • It's good because all your fast, high-speed image-stabilized lenses will still work with the new camera.

  • It's bad because those of you that have enjoyed the "magnification factor" that turned your 300mm/2.8 into a 480/2.8 will now have to go out and spend even more money on longer faster lenses because you've gotten used to having a 480/2.8

  • It's good because you can still use your Compact Flash cards in the new machines.

  • It's bad because the increased file size means that those 128Mb cards you paid $300 for will now hold the equivalent of a single roll of 35mm film. Of course you can always go out and pay hundreds of more dollars for some 1Gb CF cards and give your old ones to the kids to store MP3's on.
It used to be that photographic progress came in affordable steps. The cost of upgrades could be measured in hundreds of dollars, not thousands, and your Nikon F3 or Canon F-1 would produce images just as good as a newer F4 or F-1n until your saved enough to get the new camera body. When an increase in film technology was announced ("400ASA film with grain as fine as last year's 100ASA film!") the increase in cost per roll could be measured in cents, not dollars.

All you freelancers out there better start planning now for another mortgage refinancing and you directors of photography better shine up the knee pads because you'll be begging the ME for a budget increase next year so that you can keep up with the competition.

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer

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